The first four minutes of Maryland's 75-69 win over Penn State on Tuesday night exemplified how much of a slog the next two months will be for the shorthanded Terrapins.
Reality set in quickly at Xfinity Center for a team reduced to nine available scholarship players after losing power forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender to season-ending injuries last week. Centers Bruno Fernando and Michal Cekovsky were still feeling each other out as starters in the frontcourt, just two days after they began practicing those positions together. Sophomore Kevin Huerter picked up two fouls within the first 3:25, accentuating the limitations of Maryland's bench.
And point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. knew he would have to play all 40 minutes and carry the scoring load, even as he was also asked to facilitate the offense and chase Penn State's guards around the court. He did all of that, finishing with 18 points, four assists and two steals, knowing he would need to do it again in less than 48 hours on the road at No. 1 Michigan State (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) on Thursday night.
"Who didn't play tonight," Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon quipped after the game. "Every night is going to be a challenge for us . . . even if Michigan State played three nights in a row and they played us, it wouldn't matter. They're a heck of a team. We've got to be ready. They're playing at a high level right now. We have to figure out a way to keep the game at a pace we're comfortable with."
It will be crucial for Maryland (13-3, 2-1) to pace itself as much as possible until the beginning of the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28. The Terps have been depleted by injury just as they enter the teeth of a condensed conference schedule, with three league games on one day of rest and six on two days. Tuesday night provided the first glimpse of Turgeon's plan.
Maryland still has a cast of players who are capable of pushing in transition — namely Cowan, who shot 5 for 14 against the Nittany Lions mostly out of half-court sets, and freshman Darryl Morsell, who went just 2 for 10 from the field but hit a crucial three-pointer late — but Turgeon no longer has the luxury of a deep bench and must preserve his players' legs for conference play. The losses of Jackson and Bender, which Turgeon admitted last week presents one of the most difficult roster challenges he has had since arriving at Maryland, has thrust the 7-foot-1 Cekovsky into the power forward spot and will increase Fernando's offensive workload at center.
"I haven't been at my best yet. I felt like I had a lot of things holding me back," said Fernando, who finished with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting and 11 rebounds.
Keeping Fernando and Cekovsky healthy is paramount — both missed time in December with ankle injuries. Both found a groove with each other even as Penn State rotated between man-to-man and zone defenses. For as much as Cowan was looking for his shot off pick and rolls (he finished just 1 for 5 from three-point range) and for as much as Penn State dared Morsell to shoot from outside (he has gone just 2 for 16 from three-point range so far this season), the ball ran through Fernando and Cekovsky (10 points on 5-for-6 shooting) in the post.
The slower pace and more deliberate offensive sets did reap some encouraging results against the Nittany Lions. Maryland committed just five turnovers, a promising development for a team that ranks last in the Big Ten in turnover margin by a wide stretch at minus-3.7 per game. It also got to the foul line 34 times and made 23 of those free throws, which ultimately decided a game that felt like a must-win.
"Obviously our bench isn't long anymore. So we're going to slow it down sometimes, let everyone catch their breath and try to find out the best way to score," Cowan said.
That will be easier said than done Thursday. Michigan State is the most physical team in the league, outrebounding opponents by a conference-leading margin of 13.7 per game behind its burly frontcourt duo of Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. It also leads the league in scoring (87.7 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (32.8).
The Spartans have been one of the best two-way teams in the nation, ranking third with a 60.4 effective field goal percentage (which is weighted for three-pointers) while allowing an effective field goal percentage of 39.1, lowest in the country.
Aside from Fernando and Cekovsky dealing with Michigan State's frontcourt, the defensive matchups for Maryland will be daunting: Cowan on sophomore Cassius Winston (13.1 points per game); Morsell shadowing 6-5 guard Joshua Langford (14.1); and Huerter dealing with all-American Miles Bridges (17.0). Turgeon could shuffle some assignments, but his options are limited — more so if Maryland encounters any type of foul trouble or injury attrition.
"We've got some challenges that lie ahead of us," Turgeon said. "We'll figure it out. I've got a group that is willing."